Remote working became technically viable years ago in the internet’s adolescence, but there were many reasons to oppose it at the time. Connections were inconsistent, often dropping out or becoming unusably slow. Personal computers were bulky and expensive. Businesses had yet to fully embrace digital technology, persisting with myriad traditional workplace processes.
Today, however, those roadblocks are gone, and it was the mass office exodus driven by the COVID-19 lockdowns that delivered the final proof. Companies of many shapes and sizes were forced to move to remote operation, and it didn’t send them hurtling into bankruptcy. In truth, the move worked out well across the board. Costs went down, but productivity didn’t change much.
It hasn’t been a perfect transition, though, as many businesses have discovered (much to their frustration). One issue that’s been particularly challenging is micromanagement. Providing oversight for a remote team isn’t easy at the best of times, and efforts going awry can negatively impact team morale (stress is a huge issue) and efficacy.
In this guide, we’re going to run through everything you need to know about monitoring remote workers without veering into the dangerous realm of micromanagement. We’ll detail the nature of micromanagement, explain what makes it such a threat (and why it’s so common despite that), and set out some key tips for avoiding it. Let’s get started.
Table of Contents
Table of Contents
What is micromanagement?
In common parlance, the “micro” prefix essentially means small, and that’s the case here. Micromanagement is the management of small facets of daily work, and it carries a distinctly negative connotation (more on this next). A company prone to micromanagement might pay close attention to the moment-by-moment actions of its workers before attempting to govern them through comprehensive policies and frequent supervisor approval.
Despite what many think, you can make a case in favor of micromanagement (albeit a weak one). A complex business operation comprises countless moving parts, each of which can prove disruptive if it becomes errant. Given the risk, isn’t there some reason in those at the helm taking absolute charge over how things proceed?
The polar opposite of micromanagement could be called absentee management, a style that involves taking responsibility in principle but rarely (if ever) getting involved. Absentee managers provide little guidance and skirt decisions whenever possible, making them almost as frustrating as micromanagers — though easier for competent employees to endure.
Why should micromanagement be avoided?
We just looked at the opposite of micromanagement because they represent two ends of a spectrum, and taking a stance at the end of a spectrum tends to be a bad move. It isn’t simply about taking a detail-oriented approach. It’s about obsessing over the details, and refusing to allow employees — many of whom are professional, trustworthy, and knowledgeable — to have any autonomy. Micromanagers allow no room to breathe or focus.
Making initial efforts to micromanage employees won’t usually cause too much friction, because no business is perfect and some odd decisions can’t be avoided. But doubling down on that tactic by steadily stripping away responsibility is a huge mistake. Workers who aren’t given opportunities to take ownership of their work lose their passion and motivation.
It’s also true that a great deal of micromanagement accomplishes nothing. The suspicion that everything will fall apart if a manager isn’t there to keep people in line is very rarely justified. Think of a range of struts and supports put into place to support a bridge that simply doesn’t need it. The material used for those additions would be far more useful elsewhere, and having them there could easily get in the way of traffic.
Most troublingly, because it fills workdays with futile admin and prompts to do obvious things, micromanagement has the power to push top employees away. This can lead to a negative cycle whereby an ineffective manager concludes that the people leaving just can’t handle such demanding conditions and need to be replaced with workers who’ll suffer through them.
In reality, accepting micromanagement without complaint is often a sign of a lack of creativity. Business owners who steadily fill their ranks with people who just do what they’re told without question end up wondering why their results suffer, never understanding that their stances towards flexibility (and disdain for pushback) begat their troubles. If you hire people for their abilities and drive, you’ll get the most out of them by giving them substantial leeway.
Why is micromanagement so common for remote working?
Now that we’ve seen what makes micromanagement such an issue for so many businesses, we need to address the obvious question of why it’s so common. Why does such a toxic approach to team oversight continue to appear time and time again? Well, there are various contributing factors, and we can highlight them by looking at the negative traits of so many micromanagers:
- Distrust. Managers don’t often get to choose their teams, and taking charge of people you haven’t met in person makes it easier to doubt their abilities. A lack of willingness to trust people can push managers to deploy stricter limitations in an effort to corral them — and since it tends to engender conflict, it’s self-reinforcing.
- Arrogance. The move to remote working has taken away one of the hallmarks of managerial life, that being the possession of office prominence. Now that they have essentially the same working conditions as those working under them, arrogant managers look for other ways to show their presumed superiority, and governing the most minor aspects of regular operations is certainly one way to attempt it.
- Greed. Digital analytics offer a lot of insight into which employees are most effective, but they’re dry to examine and miss key factors (like people who provide support), so much of the art of career management still comes down to perception. Getting deep into micromanagement essentially allows the manager in question to assert that their role is utterly mission-critical. In short, they force their involvement in an effort to curry favor.
- Ignorance. Unfortunately, some managers fall into micromanagement simply because they don’t know how counterproductive it is. Wanting to be useful and get as involved as possible, they can decide that the responsible path involves approving every conclusion and every action. This isn’t hugely common, but it can happen.
It isn’t fair to put all the blame on the managers, though, because there’s another reason that can spark micromanagement: top-down operational pressure. Huge corporations can develop unreasonable expectations — particularly during economic downturns — which can spiral into panic that filters down the chain of command, with each person pressuring the person under them to deliver the unexpectedly-great results that could alleviate that pressure.
When this pressure reaches managers, they can essentially be forced into taking stricter control of their employees, all so their superiors can assert to the top brass that they couldn’t have done anything more (thus protecting their jobs, even at the detriment of overall performance).
How to monitor remote workers without micromanaging them
At this point, we can get into the heart of this piece: the titular matter of monitoring your remote workers without micromanaging them. It’s absolutely possible to effectively manage a team from afar while avoiding the previously-mentioned extremes, and the following tips should help:
Implement a central management system
Software lies at the heart of effective remote working, and it also plays a huge role in team management if used sensibly. A centralized workplace management system that provides a swathe of useful managerial facilities — particularly HR tools including time-trackers and check-in apps that encourage workers to police themselves well without feeling restricted — can have a massive impact on overall morale and productivity.
In the end, you can have a much more passive monitoring system that doesn’t require substantial outreach or even discussion. Everyone in the business can track their activities in roughly the same way, ensuring that everyone’s on the same footing and preventing any administrative tasks from being seen as micromanagement.
Focus on results rather than methods
In modern operations, too much is made of how the sausage is produced, with managers often determined to force their employees to work in certain identikit ways. This manages to prevent the occasional mistake, but far more often it prevents talented employees from getting their work done as quickly and impressively as they could if given more freedom.
What ultimately matters is that projects get finished on time and meet certain standards. Provided those conditions are met, it shouldn’t overly concern you how people work. One employee might prefer ten-minute bursts with lengthy breaks, while another might be more effective in dedicated four-hour blocks. The former might like to work early in the morning, while the other might prefer to work late at night. In short, let people work as they’d prefer to.
Arrange more informal virtual meetings
Everyone has become familiar with Zoom-style virtual conferencing tools since the first COVID-19 lockdown began, yet they don’t always deliver useful results. In fact, it’s possible that they don’t often deliver useful results. In far too many cases, Zoom meetings (despite the occasional fun background) are stilted and awkward, with attendees who ostensibly have the freedom to talk feeling implicitly pressured to stay quiet and avoid rocking the boat.
Even so, the potential is there to yield a lot of insight concerning workplace performance. The meetings just need to be arranged more effectively. This is one reason why we’re seeing the rise of the virtual event platform with more well-rounded capabilities allowing meetings to better mimic real-world discussions. Topia is a good example, advancing a goal of connecting virtually in a more human way through spatial dynamics that allow meeting participants to form ad-hoc conversations (just as they might in conventional workplaces).
Provide clear lines of employee support
The more capable people are of looking after themselves, the less you’ll need to monitor them. After all, they’ll be more confident and willing to approach you with their issues instead of needing you to pick them out. If you’re not receiving any queries on a given day, you can safely assume that things are running as they should and there’s no great need for active monitoring.
This is only a reliable approach if you have clear lines of employee support, though. In the event that a worker has an urgent problem, have you made it clear how they can get hold of you? You need to set out the hours you work, the channels you check, and the issues you’ll deal with as matters of priority. When will you answer your phone? When will you be unavailable? You can use software like Slack for something like this, though be sure to set appropriate restrictions so your time doesn’t get wasted poring over irrelevant comments.
Get feedback from clients and/or partners
Lastly, you can effectively outsource some of the monitoring effort by paying close attention to what clients and/or partners are saying about your team members. This can also give you useful context for your digital metrics: it may appear that someone spent too much time on a client project, but if the client is so astonished by their performance that they’re much more enthusiastic about doing business with you, it may prove to have been time well spent.
In this way, you can leave your employees to focus on their core tasks instead of persistently justifying their decisions to you. It doesn’t need to be a formal process, it bears noting: you should be having semi-regular check-ins with clients (and frequent conversations with partners), so take note of relevant comments and ask how your employees in general are doing. Insist on honesty if you ask, though, explaining that no jobs are directly on the line: consider most people don’t like being critical and may worry about seeming overly demanding otherwise.
What are some examples of micromanagement?
Some of the most common examples of micromanagement are asking far too many questions about trivial matters, tasking employees with double-checking and triple-checking things they rarely (if ever) get wrong, expecting minor actions to be logged in exhaustive detail, and requiring people to approach their workloads in specific ways. In short, it consistently prevents workers from getting things done as rapidly as they otherwise could.
When should you micromanage?
You should only engage in micromanagement when your employees are abusing their autonomy and taking advantage of your absence — but it should only be a temporary measure. Once you’ve confirmed that workers are getting things done at a decent pace, you should back off and leave them to get on with their workloads.
How does micromanagement kill productivity?
Getting distracted is a huge problem in business, and micromanagement is greatly distracting. It’s hard for an employee to focus on their usual tasks when their manager keeps asking them questions and requiring them to switch their attention to new tracking tasks. It also saps their spirit by showing that they’re not trusted and upping their workload, slowing everything down.
When does micromanagement become harassment?
There isn’t an easy answer to this question, but micromanagement definitely counts as harassment when it intrudes into employees’ personal lives or becomes belligerent. Expecting too much of workers and never showing any positivity will produce a toxic working environment, something that won’t benefit anyone in any way.
Can you report micromanagement to HR?
Part of an HR department’s remit should be to care about any issue (professional or personal) that’s preventing an employee from being optimally productive, so an HR department should act to investigate micromanagement problems. Unfortunately, if an HR department is run poorly, it can actually support micromanagement as a way to squeeze performance out of employees — so it ultimately depends on the quality of the company as a whole.
Wrapping up, micromanagement — excessive efforts to gauge and control how your employees focus on minor everyday tasks — is highly toxic, causing issues across the board (particularly if taken to extremes), yet it’s very common for reasons we’ve covered here. If you’re to avoid it, you need to take suitable action using the suggestions we just outlined.
By deploying top-notch software, improving your meeting process, allowing people to work as they wish to, offering clear support, and requesting feedback from clients and/or partners, you can learn everything you need to know about employee performance without being overly intrusive and causing the issues that inevitably stem from that.
About the Author
Rodney Laws loves nothing more than to build ecommerce websites and share his knowledge with fledgling online business owners and brands. When he’s not doing work in the online world, Rodney likes hiking, photography, and visiting new countries. You can see what he’s up to by checking out EcommercePlatforms.io or following him on Twitter @EcomPlatformsio.